When it comes to poor kids, suburban districts do no better in providing them high-quality education than their big-city counterparts.

If you want to understand how poorly suburban districts do in providing their growing enrollments of poor and minority children with high-quality education — and why reformers cannot simply ignore those woes — take a glimpse at the school districts in tony Hamilton County, Ind., outside of Indianapolis, whose suburbs are home to some of the Hoosier State’s most-prosperous families.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngFor most of the past three decades, districts such as Carmel-Clay, Hamilton Southeastern, and Westfield-Washington have only had to provide teaching and curricula to the children of executives and middle managers of such Fortune 500 outfits such as drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co., and healthcare giant WellPoint, who fled from the Circle City for traditional district schools perceived to be better than the failure mills of woeful Indianapolis Public Schools and even the relative mediocrity of its 10 sister districts. But thanks in part to the failures of IPS, along with the Hamilton County’s strong population growth, children from low-income backgrounds are making up large percentages of enrollment. Between 1999-2000 and 2010-2011, the percentage of children in Hamilton County’s traditional districts and charters receiving free- and reduced-priced lunch increased by 329 percent, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data reported to the U.S. Department of Education. Poor children made up 12 percent of all students attending Hamilton County’s traditional districts in 2010-2011, versus 4.4 percent of enrollment 12 years ago. This includes Carmel-Clay, whose percentage of poor students increased by 467 percent within that period (they made up 9.5 percent of all students in 2010-2011), Hamilton Southeastern, which has seen an 11-fold increase in poor children attending its schools (who now make up 14.3 percent of enrollment), and Westfield-Washington, which has seen its enrollment of low-income children increase by nearly a two-fold (children from poor households made up 18 percent of enrollment).

Yet Hamilton County’s districts aren’t providing their poorest children the high-quality education they deserve. In Carmel-Clay, the percentage of low-income fourth-graders passing the reading and math portions of the Hoosier State’s ISTEP+ exams increased by only 6.3 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data provided by the Indiana Department of Education, while the percentage of low-income fourth graders in Westfield-Washington passing ISTEP+ increased by just 6.5 percent. The percentage of low-income fourth-grade peers in Hamilton Southeastern passing ISTEP+ actually declined by 4.7 percent over that same period. All three districts trailed the 23.4 percent increase in percentage of low-income fourth-graders statewide passing the exams. The districts are also struggling to stem the wide achievement gaps between poor and middle class kids. The percentage of low-income fourth-graders in all three districts passing ISTEP was, on average, 20 percentage points lower than for middle-class peers, just a few points lower than the 24.7 percent gap statewide. But don’t think that just the poor and minority kids are being poorly served. The percentage of Carmel-Clay middle-class fourth-graders passing both parts of ISTEP+ increased by a mere 2.4 percent, while Hamilton Southeastern experienced a 4.4 percent increase; the percentage of Westfield-Washington fourth-graders from the middle class passing ISTEP+ increased by 5.3 percent. Both districts trailed the 9 percent increase in the percentage of middle class fourth-graders statewide passing the exams.

The suburban districts are also doing poorly in helping its poorest students gain the college-preparatory education they need to ultimately move into the middle class. Just 32 percent of Carmel’s high school graduates in 2011 on free lunch programs (and 20 percent of those on reduced-lunch programs) took an Advanced Placement exam, versus 55.3 percent of middle class peers did so; a mere 26.5 percent of Hamilton Southeastern’s high school graduates on free lunch (and 32 percent of reduced-lunch graduates) took AP exams, versus 73.5 percent of middle-class peers. Just 15.6 percent of Westfield-Washington’s graduates on free lunch (along with half of reduced-lunch peers) took an AP exam, versus 61.7 percent of middle class peers. The AP test taking levels for low-income students were were lower than the 38 percent national average for all graduates.

This isn’t to say that Hamilton County’s suburban districts are as woeful as IPS — which, despite improving the passing rates for its poorest fourth-graders on ISTEP+ by 12 percent between 2009 and 2011, remains the worst-performing district in the Midwest outside of Detroit. But Carmel-Clay, Hamilton Southeastern, and Westfield-Washington haven’t learned from the troubles of IPS or the struggles of formerly suburban (and now, completely urban peers) such as Washington Township, As a result,  poor children – as well as those from the middle class – are paying the price. Thanks to the Hoosier State’s efforts to expand school choice — including the nation’s most-expansive voucher program — the poorest families in Hamilton County do have opportunities to choose better options for their kids. But this isn’t true for many children from poor households (as well as those from black and Latino backgrounds) living in suburbia. And this is a big issue because there are more poor children attending suburban district schools than ever.

As the Brookings Institution has pointed out in a book it is releasing tomorrow, the percentage of poor families flocking to suburbia increased by 67 percent; on average, 12 percent of residents in suburbia are struggling economically and socially, versus 22 percent of residents in big cities. This, in turn, means that more low-income families are sending their kids to the suburban districts long considered to be cordons solitaire from the nation’s education crisis. As with black and Latino families from the middle class, poor families of all backgrounds move into suburbia thinking that traditional district schools in those communities will do better in providing their kids with high-quality teaching and curricula than the big city districts they fled. The strong job growth in the ‘burbs compared to big cities, along with the lower costs of rent and other housing and lower levels of violent crime, have also brought more low-income families to suburban communities and their schools.

But as it turns out, far too many suburban districts provide all children with mediocre education — and serve children from poor backgrounds worst of all. This starts with the Zip Code Education policies such as school zones that keep poor families from sending their kids to better-performing schools within districts. Thirty-four percent of suburban kids — and three out of every five black and Latino kids in suburbia — attend schools where more than half their peers are on free and reduced lunch, according to the U.S. Department of Education; this essentially means that there is at least a one-in-two chance that they are poor themselves. The restrictions are especially galling considering that the growth of charter schools and other forms of choice in big cities has given poor families who live in those locales wider arrays of options.

These intra-district restrictions are matched by the longstanding opposition to the expansion of charter schools and other forms of choice that would avail poor families (as well as middle-class counterparts) of other options. States have aided and abetted their efforts by giving traditional districts approval over the opening of charter schools. Given that charters are competition with their schools, suburban districts have little incentive to either approve charters, authorize high-quality operators, or, as in the case of the fracas two years ago between the Fulton County district in Georgia and the Fulton Science Academy (now a private school), keep them around if they show up the competition.

The consequences of these restrictions, along with the unwillingness of suburban district bureaucracies to embrace the array of systemic reforms taken on by big-city districts such as New York City, can be seen in the performance of children from low-income households on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One out of every two young men in suburban fourth-grade classrooms on free- and reduced lunch (along with two out of five young women peers) read Below Basic in 2011, a mere four and two points decline, respectively, from the levels of functional illiteracy four years earlier. Given that the percentage of low-income suburban fourth-grade young men struggling with literacy is only seven percentage points lower than that for big-city counterparts (and only six points lower for suburban fourth-grade young women peers than for big-city counterparts), suburban districts are doing as poorly as big-city counterparts in providing the poorest kids with high-quality education needed for success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Meanwhile poor families are learning the hard way that many teachers and school leaders working in suburbia can be just as condescending to them — and think as lowly of the potential of their kids — as the instructors and school leaders in the big-city districts these families left behind. This isn’t surprising because black and Latino families from middle-class backgrounds, often having emerged from poverty themselves, have also been treated with the same disdain. As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the suburbs surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs. This is not unusual. When one looks at the low level this country, these families are often not informed about their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life, including opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses or participate in the growing number of dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education.

But the consequences of suburban district mediocrity aren’t just visited on the brown and the penniless. One out of every five suburban fourth grade young men from middle-class backgrounds were reading Below Basic in 2011, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of NAEP data, just three points better than levels of illiteracy four years earlier; big-city districts brought down the levels of illiteracy for their middle class students by four percentage points in that same period, with nearly as many students from those backgrounds struggling with reading. Twenty-eight percent of suburban fourth-graders overall were functionally illiterate in 2011, no better than the levels four years earlier; this compares poorly to the one- and two-point declines, respectively, among big-city and rural districts in the same period. Meanwhile one out of every eight white suburban fourth-graders not on free-or-reduced lunch are struggling with reading  equal to the levels of illiteracy in big-city districts. Suburban districts can no longer pretend that low-quality teaching and curricula is just a problem for families in urban communities. And this aspect of the nation’s education crisis — one that the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability provisions have helped expose — is one that reformers must address as part of transforming American public education.

This won’t be easy. After all, the complaints from suburbia about how No Child has led to revelations of traditional district mediocrity is one reason why the Obama Administration has undertaken its thoughtless waiver gambit. The fact that middle class families, who moved to the burbs for what they thought were high-quality schools, don’t necessarily want to admit how poorly their districts are doing with poor kids (as well as their own) is also a problem. But the very growth in the number of poor and minority families in suburbia offers reformers opportunities to rally support. Strong grassroots advocacy, especially with poor and minority families and the churches that are the hubs of their social and political lives, is a start. But simply focusing on the academic failures of suburban districts isn’t enough. Reformers would also do well to learn from the NEA and AFT, and provide financial support to new and emerging organizations — as well as old-school groups — to which a younger generation of black professionals now raising families belong.

Advancing the expansion ofschool choice and Parent Power (including blended learning options) is also key. Making the case that choice allows for all families, poor or middle class, to meet the particular needs of their children can win support, especially from  white middle class families who realize that how they are hurt by school zones and other Zip Code Education policies (and are also condescended by teachers and school leaders when they want more for their kids), but don’t see any other way to avoid those problems beyond paying for private schools out their own pockets. Working at the state level to place charter school authorization solely in the hands of state governments would also make it easier to expand choice in suburbia. States such as Georgia and Tennessee have already made such moves; reformers should make this a reality in every state.

Advancing the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards is also keep, use especially in states where choice remains restricted; it is clear that neither poor nor middle class children are receiving comprehensive college preparatory curricula. Because this means making clear to middle class households (including those who are movement conservatives, and thus, often opposed to the standards) that the status quo is not good enough for their own kids or anyone else’s. [Oddly enough, Indiana’s legislature has done a disservice to all children in suburbia last month when it moved to halt implementation of Common Core.] And recruiting newly-graduated teens — especially those who have managed to graduate from high school and attend college in spite of the odds — to run for state school board races would also help; this can help parents understand how mediocre education for other people’s children regardless of background may hurt their own kin.

With more poor children moving into suburbia, the struggles the traditional districts in those communities have in providing high-quality education to those kids (as well as peers from the middle class) can no longer be ignored. It’s time for reformers to tackle the problems of suburban districts are fiercely as they have done in big cities.